There have been several important music clubs in New Orleans over the years, including the Dew Drop Inn, Prout’s Club Alhambra, Mason’s Las Vegas Strip, the Blue Eagle, Jed’s College Inn, Jimmy’s and Tipitina’s. However, in the early ’70s, the city’s center of musical activity was located at the corner of Carondolet Street and Louisiana Avenue—the Nite Cap.
“In those days, if you hadn’t been to the Nite Cap, then you hadn’t been nowhere,” laughed Alfred Doucette, the Nite Cap co-proprietor for eight years. “People came from all over the city, and out of town, because they wanted to be part of that Nite Cap scene. We always showed people a good time and nobody said anything bad about the Nite Cap. A lot of nights we couldn’t put any more people in the club and they’d be crowded outside on the neutral ground all the way to St. Charles Avenue [one block].”
Besides being the place to be seen, the Nite Cap was a proving ground for New Orleans bands like the Meters, Chocolate Milk, the Extatics, Sam Henry and the Soul Machine, Deacon John and the Electric Soul Train, the Batiste Brothers, Burnt Toast and Coffee, Oliver & the Rockettes, Cool Enterprise, and Stop Inc. to name just a few. If one were to look for the spot where New Orleans funk originated, they don’t need to look further than the vacant brick building that still stands across the street from a Rally’s hamburger joint.
Born in New Orleans’ Eighth Ward on October 27, 1940, operating one the city’s premier music locations was a brief, but fascinating portion of Doucette’s (his handle is “Fly” as in “Superfly”) life. Doucette has been a master carpenter, a body and fender man, trained and raced thoroughbred horses, managed and booked entertainment, been a successful drag racer, and owned several rental properties. In 1988, he joined the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and he has received numerous awards and accolades for the brilliant Indian suits he has created. Photographs of Doucette in his suits have appeared in countless magazines around the world. He also co-hosts New Orleans Live, a weekly music and arts program that appears on WVUE-TV.
But back to the Nite Cap. Oddly enough, Doucette pointed out that the initial success of the Nite Cap was a spin off of his and his brothers’ success as drag racers.
“Me and my brothers had a following from racing cars, on the street, and at tracks like LaPlace and Baton Rouge. I had a 1936 Plymouth coupe with a Ford 427 engine and a four-speed. I built that car myself. We were the first ones to integrate the track in Hattiesburg. We had black people lined up outside the fence to watch us. Everywhere we went, we had a thousand people following us. We had a line of cars following us everywhere we went. We joined the N.H.R.A. and started entering $100,000 races as far away as Texas. The following we had from the cars followed us to the Nite Cap. When we opened the club, I had a 1966 Impala with a loud exhaust. When I’d go by the projects on Louisiana Avenue I’d nail it. People followed me to the Nite Cap.
“I’d never been in the night club business or around musicians before. But my younger brothers had a friend—Bodaray—who had several successful clubs. Bodaray asked if we were interested in taking over the Nite Cap. I had a body and fender shop at the time and $12,000 hid in a can at home. My brothers, Roland and Sterling, knew I had that money. So they went to a cigarette company and they lent us $20,000 in exchange for putting two cigarette machines in the place. That gave us enough money to take over the lease and renovate the place. By me being a master carpenter and my brothers being general contractors, it really helped and saved us money. We had that place looking sharp. We had a neon sign outside with a woman in a cocktail glass.”
Under Doucette, the club reopened in 1971, but the first six months were unprofitable, even though the club was instantly popular.
“We tried to hire people that we knew and make it a family thing. That didn’t work. People were stealing from us and I could see my money going out the door. On a Monday night, I put a friend of mine at the bar. He saw five people stealing. I got all five in the office and said, ‘Give me my money now and get the hell out of here, or I’m calling the police, and you’re all going to jail.’ They started pulling money from everywhere as fast as they could. In the end, there was $1,100 on my desk.”
With the right employees eventually in place, things ran much smoother. From the get-go, Doucette knew music would sell the club so he invested $20,000 in a house lighting and sound system. He then perused the local nighteries for talent and put together a semi-regular schedule. Mondays were disco night, which were hosted by local deejays like Gus Lewis, Bobby Earl and Sister Love. (A smart move which turned into free radio advertisements—”The Meters are throwing down at the Nite Cap tonight!”) Tuesdays the club was dark. The Meters—who had played for the previous owner—performed Wednesdays, but initially they only drew about 200 people to a 500 capacity room. Doucette added a talent show and advertised a $100 first prize as part of Wednesday’s entertainment and the draw increased dramatically. Deacon John and the Electric Soul Train usually packed the place and attracted one of the Nite Cap’s first integrated audiences. On the weekends, Doucette alternated groups like Willie Tee, Chocolate Milk, Burnt Toast and Coffee, and Cool Enterprise, along with touring bands like the Manhattans, Bobby Womack and Swiss Movement.
“Swiss Movement consisted of a bunch of guys from here that hooked up with the Temptations and moved to Detroit,” explained Doucette. “I’d bring ’em down here once a month for a weekend, and over a course of an evening sometimes 1,000 came through the door. They were real popular. If they did real well, I’d hold ’em over until Sunday night.
Doucette, who initially paid the Meters $350 a night, was one of the first club proprietors to institute a cover charge for local bands.
“We had trouble with a sneak thief coming in and stealing pocket books and jackets,” said Doucette. “We couldn’t catch him and had to get him out of there some kind of way. We also needed to get more money coming into the club. I figured, whoever was doing the stealing needed money and couldn’t afford to pay a cover charge. One Wednesday night, I charged a dollar admission. A lot of people got mad at first. But most people paid it. Later, I was able to pay the bands more money. That made some other club owners mad at me, because the bands started demanding that the other clubs pay them what I was paying.”
In a roundabout way, Doucette was responsible for the success of the Meters.
“Artie [Neville] had left the Meters [around 1972]. It was something about the money and some paper work. He left and went with Deacon John. Deacon’s keyboard player went with the Meters. But the sound just wasn’t there [for the Meters] and I could see people weren’t coming out to see them any more. I was tight with Artie and worked on him for about a month. I said, ‘Bruh, I ain’t making any money and you ain’t working as much. You need to bury that shit between y’all.’ Well, Artie went back and they became international stars.”
While Doucette’s major interest was making a profit, he was also a music fan. Being that he was in the Nite Cap nearly every night, nobody had a better view of the change in New Orleans music in the 1970s.
“There was a big transition,” pointed out Doucette. “When we opened, the music was more straight and sane. Then it changed and got wilder and crazier—but it worked. Take the Meters, when they got on the stage those four boys kicked up some stuff. I had reel-to-reel tapes and home movies I made on them. I had all that stuff in storage, but I lost it in a flood a few years ago, aaagh!!”
However, success led to the demise of Nite Cap as Doucette detailed.
“Every club in this town followed the Nite Cap. When I did something, it took off. Other clubs opened like Touch of Class and Caesar’s East and they started snatching bands and doing what I was doing. That took away some business, but it was the police that really shut us down. They started hassling the people outside every night and coming into the club and giving people a hard time. They wanted us out of the district, I mean people were smoking weed outside and blocking the sidewalk sometime—but what’s that? We never had any fights or drugs inside the club. You asked me if it was a racial thing—I think it was.”
Rather than raise the white flag, Doucette opened Nite Cap II in an old supermarket on Washington Avenue. He and his bothers renovated the club and continued to book live entertainment. By 1980, the live music business had fallen off drastically and Doucette’s brothers were out of the picture. “Disco had come in and people weren’t going to see live music any more,” he said. “People had plenty money in the 1970s—by the 1980s that money was gone. People started staying home.”
Ever resourceful, Doucette thought of a novel way to keep the Nite Cap II’s doors open. “I put in a skating rink. On a Monday, I cut all the carpet out of there, concrete sanded the floors smooth and put a railing around the walls. I rented a hundred pair of skates and that Wednesday I had people in suits and ties skating around the club. I did that for six or seven months, but the money wasn’t right and I fell behind on the rent. I closed the place in 1981.”
Doucette bought a farm in Lumberton, Mississippi, where he trained and raised thoroughbreds until 1989. He returned to New Orleans and worked as a carpenter until a back injury incapacitated him. Three years ago, he joined New Orleans Live and still continues to carry on his duties as the Council Chief of his tribe.
“Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t stop me and say, ‘Fly, remember me from the Nite Cap?”’ said Doucette. “A couple of people have tried to do Nite Cap reunions, but they never did them right. To get it done right, Fly’d have to do it.”